The Indian epic Mahabharata is a complicated story of two sets of cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, fighting over property. The five Pandavas, the sons of King Pandu, want their share of the kingdom but the Kauravas, the sons of Dhritarashtra, don’t want to share anything of the kingdom they see as entirely their own. The Kauravas are jealous that their cousins have turned a barren piece of land into a flourishing kingdom they parted with very reluctantly and want to have it all. They invite the Pandavas to a game of dice in which the Pandavas lose their kingdom, themselves, and their wife, Draupadi. They are also exiled for fourteen years—one of which they have to spend in disguise or they would need to spend another fourteen years in exile. When their exile ends, the Pandavas, urged by their wife Draupadi and supported by Krishna (a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu himself) challenge the Kauravas to war and win.
The war is preceded by Krishna’s sermon to Arjuna. The sermon, known as the Bhagavad Gita, is Krishna’s advice to Arjuna (and to anyone who is reading or listening) to give up doubt and to fight. It’s a story of a great war whose roots go back four generations, each addingan element of greed, curse, and revenge that climaxes in great destruction.
Men who swear to avoid women to honor their fathers, women who demand impossible things of husbands, friends who forget their promises and who swear to avenge their insults, fathers who invoke occult powers to get children who would destroy their enemies, women who swear to be reborn to destroy men, and brothers who make each other feel insecure—the story is layered with jealousy and its causes and consequences very difficult to disentangle. That’s why it has fascinated readers and listeners for centuries with its fuzzy boundaries of right and wrong.
The Mahabharata has been retold in various ways. A recent retelling is Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions narrated from Draupadi’s point of view that probes the events that lead to the war for which she is held responsible. The Mahabharata encourages a lot of these feminist interventions probing questions such as: How has women’s role been framed in the war? Are they actors with a sense of agency of their own? Are they victims? How does one make sense of Draupadi’s marriage with five men? How does one interpret women’s power to invoke gods to have children?
Ira Mukhoty’s Song of Draupadi, a recent feminist take, stands out among such retellings thanks to two differences. One has to do with her focus on women in the story—instead of focusing on one central character, Mukhoty attempts to explore all important women characters; for a brief moment, she focuses even on the story of a servant girl too. And the other difference has to do with the form. When novelists retell the Mahabharata, especially as feminist retellings, they retain the curses and supernatural occurrences, the staple elements of “epics” which seem not to interest Mukhoty very much.
Although the title mentions Draupadi, the book touches upon perspectives and sufferings of all women characters. In her introduction, Mukhoty writes:
I have always been interested in the depiction of women in the text, in the polyphony of female voices that struggle to be heard against the crashing background of male concerns and the strident call to war of the conch shell. My personal quest, in Song of Draupadi, is to recover these muffled voices and examine the many ways in which they were able to express defiance and claim justice for themselves in what was in essence a profoundly patriarchal world. I have centred my story around a handful of these women, trying to understand the subtlety of their rebellion and the grief in their whispers.
Indeed, Mukhoty achieves her purpose by dwelling on each character. What emerges as common among all women characters is that they are all plagued by insecurity about their status. They push their husbands and sons to war in order to secure their future. The story might be about the rift in the family but what motivates the turn of events is social hierarchy. For instance, Ganga, the tribal woman King Shantanu marries finds her new life as a queen awful:
The old women of the palace rouse themselves from their torpor to show Ganga the ways of the house of Hastinapur. The younger women gather around the bride to discuss jewellery and the intricate weave of fine-spun clothes. But it is not long before these efforts give way to disappointment, thwarted by Ganga’s tribal language, which the older women are quick to dismiss as gibberish. It is foiled also by Ganga herself, and her complete lack of interest in the management of her household and her disinterest in all things worldly. They are disconcerted by the way she has, when they are trying to explain to her the use of ground masoor dal and honey as a face pack, of looking past them into the high blue sky at the spikes of migrating cranes in their mysterious flyways.
Ganga, the first female ancestor in the great poem, is different from the other women characters to come because she is not concerned about her future. She finds the palace a prison. She comes to be seen as mad or even a witch for she kills her children—except the last one Bheeshma whom Shantanu manages to save— one by one. This may sound like a“madwoman in the attic” kind of narrative, but Mukhoty does a bit more with her representation of social milieu. The women of the next generations are fiery and calculating. They know what they want. When King Shantanu falls for another woman Satyavati (after the “mad” Ganga dies), a fisherwoman, she makes him promise that her children would be heir to the throne. Satyavati’s great-grand-daughters-in-law, Gandhari and Kunti, the mothers of the Kauravas and the Pandavas, also reflect the same determination to stay put and think of ways to survive as queens and as mothers of sons. Each sees her sons as the rightful heirs to the throne and fights her destiny. Gandhari blindfolds herself as a protest against the betrayal of being married to a blind prince but readies herself to give birth to sons so that she remains safe as a queen-mother, if not the queen. Kunti too is desperate to leave her father’s dark kingdom behind. Sons are her “only hope against a barren and blighted fate” for without them, Gandhari would be the queen mother. When she’s widowed, her future is even more uncertain.
Draupadi, the most well-known woman character from the Mahabharata, the wife of the five Pandavas, also asks Kunti for just one thing that even if her husbands marry other women, none of them would even be allowed into family and the household and that she alone be their queen.
Gandhari and Kunti also both end up fighting her destiny and its precarity too much. One (Gandhari) doesn’t stop her sons from turning savage with power or humiliating Draupadi, and the other (Kunti) would rather want them dead than live as destitute. The result is the war at Kurukshetra. Towards the end of the novel, the two women who were once competing in the race to give birth to sons mourn at what is to come at the end of the war:
So it will be war then, Sister. And we will meet now only on the other side of the battlefield, where we will count our glorious dead.
Retellings of the Mahabharata generally leave events in the text and the supernatural elements and prophecies much as they are. Mukhoty, once again, goes a step further. The scene in which it’s decided that all five Pandava brothers would marry Draupadi is normally explained as Kunti uttering accidentally to Arjun that he must share whatever he’s brought home that day – that “whatever” turns out to be Draupadi. And so marriage to the five brothers it is! Mukhoty dwells on the scene and provide a much more logical explanation to it. Arjuna, the Pandava who has won Draupadi’s hand in a swayamvar (contest), realizes something.
Arjun, with his subtle and restless intelligence, understands at last the unimaginable truth. He realises why Yudhishthir left the swayamvar hall so soon after he had won the contest. He knows that Draupadi’s flaming beauty has scalded Yudhishthir forever and when he returned to the potter’s hut, it was to tell Kunti all that had happened. Kunti would have seen the glittering desire in her son’s heart and this charade that why are now all playing is a result of that.
Similarly, Mukhoty has no patience for the miracle at Draupadi’s disrobing by the Kauravas when Yudhishthir loses her in a game of dice. As the Mahabharata has it, Draupadi’s sari grows longer and the Kauravas are unable to humiliate her. But Mukhoty keeps it realistic:
Dusshasan laughs and grabs Draupadi by the hair but she spins around and pulls her hair away from him. She holds her hair in her own hands now and spits venom at Dusshasan.
‘My hair, which has been sullied by this beast, shall remain as it is now, untied and unwashed, till the day I can wash it in his blood. I swear this, by everything that I hold sacred, that I will wash my hair in the blood from his heart, and only then will I know peace.’
There is ominous silence after this, as the men contemplate these scandalous words. She has spoken of blood lust and vengeance, and they are uncomfortably reminded of her bleeding site in front of them, polluting and dangerous and calamitous.
In the grating silence, a distant howl of a jackal is heard, a lonely and bloodcurdling lament, and soon there is a discordant chorus of howls and no one in the hall can ignore this terrible omen of bad luck.
That’s it—no divine intervention.
In her retelling, Mukhoty thus humanizes the epic. She explains the politics of war in the story—in which women had a very strong role to play—with a battle for stature. She also does away with gods to an extent. Combined with these two stylistic takes on the story of the Mahabharata, Song of Draupadi is an intriguing read for Mukhoty’s subtle focus on the spices and the fragrances when setting her scenes: it makes her rendering of the ancient times in which the “original” story is said to have been composed very relatable for contemporary times.